Dopamine and the mind – why good designs go wrong

14.02.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss

Over the years, I have noticed a strange pattern: when executives (site owners) are asked to comment on design layouts, they often say there is too much text and demand larger pictures/graphics – whether these are relevant or not. These executives are disappointed and frustrated with the design proposals they see. On the other hand, if you listen to users (during usability testing, for example), they complain that these same pictures/graphics are getting in their way. Like the executives, they also exhibit frustration, but in a diametrically different way – “Why are you making me scroll past this crap to get to the information I really need?” 

My question was simple: was there a scientific reason for these dramatically different reactions to essentially the same designs? And I think the answer is “yes”.I’ve included a few salient footnotes for those of you who are scientifically inclined.

Thesis in brief (1)

Why do two groups of people seem to consistently disagree regarding the “attractiveness” of a website design? Could it be that there was a physiological reason for these reactions? In short, was our brain playing tricks on us or misleading us? Were our development and presentation techniques actually encouraging inappropriate client reactions?

Early research

I have known about the functions of neurophysiological “reward chemicals” since my pre-med studies at Washington University in St. Louis 1972-1976. In late 2007, having spotted the curious reaction pattern described above, I started to do some more serious research, focusing on the limbic system (2) and the nature of reward chemicals (3).

I made the assumption that if the pattern I had identified was universal, voluntary intake of recreational reward chemicals (e.g. nicotine, caffine, cocaine, etc.) was probably not at the heart of these reactions. So I looked for chemical rewards produced by the body itself. Soon, my inquiry zeroed in on dopamine, a chemical messenger similar to adrenaline. (4)

Dopamine – friend or foe?

Dopaminergic neurons appear to code environmental stimuli rather than specific movements. (5) This, in layman’s terms, means that pretty pictures stimulate dopamine release, which perhaps explains why executives favour graphics over blocks of text in dummy design layouts.

Although this reaction seems obvious (pictures are more attractive than text), it was reassuring to know that there was a scientific reason for this.

Task-solving activities

The second part of my question dealt with why test subjects so often reacted badly to eye-candy (i.e. gratuitous pictures/graphics).

There are various viewpoints as to the role of dopamine and the task-completion process. For example, Pennartz et al. (6) asked in 2009:

“Given the parallel organization of corticostriatal circuits, the question arises how coherent behavior, requiring integration of sensorimotor, cognitive, and motivational information, is achieved.”

Perhaps part of the answer to this critical question can be found in Taizo Nakazato’s research, published back in 2005 (7):

“During the task performance, dopamine concentration started to increase just after the cue, peaked near the time of the lever press, and returned to basal levels 1–2 s after the lever press.”

By way of background, this study deals with rats pressing a lever to receive a food reward. In internet terms, I equate this behavior with humans pushing a button/clicking a link to receive an informational reward. In other words, task accomplishment produces a reward – in this case chemical.

Actually, though, it appears that the anticipation of task-completion triggers dopamine release (8). And it could be that executives about to see a proposed design for the first time may be anticipating the presence of pretty pictures.

Yet the essence of the problem seems to be that if something delays/hinders task completion, dopamine release actually causes post-action frustration. Dr. J.G. Fleischer describes this phenomenon quite succinctly: (9, 10)

“If the [subject] does not receive the reward when it expects to receive it, then there is a depression of dopamine release, which is consistent with the negative preduction error that would occur in that situation.”

In other words, if something gets in the way of task completion, dopamine doesn’t get where it’s needed (“depression of dopamine release”). I suggest that perhaps the pretty pictures and eye-candy that were anticipated and appreciated during the presentation phase, are actually getting in the way of test subjects who expect a more relevant response to their query (i.e. clicking on a promising link). If we make people scroll to get to the stuff they want (and expect to receive), they experience dopamine depression.

That said, a more recent study by Wanat et al. (11), suggests that further research is needed:

“[The] enhancement of reward-evoked dopamine signaling was also observed in sessions in which the response requirement was fixed but the delay to reward delivery increased, yoked to corresponding trials in PR sessions. These findings suggest that delay, and not effort, was principally responsible for the increased reward-evoked dopamine release in PR sessions. Together, these data demonstrate that NAcc dopamine release to rewards and their predictors are dissociable and differentially regulated by the delays conferred under escalating costs.”

In other words, the tougher it is to achieve a result, the greater the dopamine reward. This somewhat contradicts my thesis – and yet these findings also indicate that the response is situational. Hence, I feel certain that Wanat & Co. are actually looking at a different side of the problem, unrelated to task-based frustration, but that related to task-completion in a triumphal ”I just made it to the summit of Mt. Everest” kind of manner.

Drawing on my network

In late 2009, my online research led me to my grade-school best-friend, Jon Kassel. (12) Jon is now Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Jon’s speciality is addiction. Naturally, the effect of drugs on emotions represents a key part of his own research.

Jon and I chatted informally about the problem with which I was wrestling. And without putting too many words in Jon’s mouth, it seems my thesis holds water – certainly from a cognitive point of view, and more and more from a clinical-psychology point of view, too. I hope that Jon and I can work on this in more detail sometime.

Please note: my conversations with Jon served merely as litmus tests and should not be construed as formal endorsement of my theories on the part of Dr. Kassel or the University of Illinois.

Community research

Of course, it could be that the pattern I thought I had detected was merely a fata morgana, Maybe my community wasn’t seeing the same things I was. So in January 2010, I published a simple survey on SurveyMonkey, which I broadcast to the interactive-design community via social media and list serves. (13) All of my questions could be answered with a simple yes/no. Here they are, along with the results of the 144 people who responded within the first week:

1. Have you ever been at a client meeting where you or your company have presented detailed page mockups for a proposed website (a “comp” complete with graphics and “greeked” text)?

Note: This may or may not represent the culmination of a longer discovery/strategic/IA process, but exactly where this presentation occurs in the overall process is not particularly important in terms of this survey.

Yes: 97.9%
No: 2.1%

2. If you have been to a website design presentation meeting as described above, have you ever heard the client say, “Very pretty, but there’s too much text. We need more/better/prettier graphics.” (this is when clients start talking about including pictures of their pet cat.)

I see this mostly when senior officials have not participated in an earlier discovery/IA/wireframing process.

Yes: 70.5%
No: 29.5%

3. Having been present at the original design presentation, have you later observed (probably through a one-way mirror during a usability session) that respondents say “Don’t make me scroll through the damned eye-candy to get to the substance. Get rid of the picture of that dumb cat!”

Yes: 58%
No: 42%

4. So in short, do you see any correlation between requests for more eye-candy during the layout approvals, and irritation with the same eye-candy during task-based usability testing?

Yes: 59.9%
No: 41.1%

About 62% of the respondents were from North America, 30% were from Europe, 8% were from the rest of the world.

Even though this is a primitive survey, the statistical results are significant; the pattern I hypothesised is recognized by others by a factor approaching 2 to 1.

Today, “dopamine” seems to have become “flavor of the month”

I first mentioned this research en passant in blogpost I published in January, 2009. (14) I talked about it again briefly at the IA Summit in Phoenix, AZ in April, 2010. Today, the subject seems to be finally taking hold – most recently at the IxDA’s conference, Interactions 11, in Boulder, CO last week (February 2011). Here, Charles Hannon, presented the subject formally (e.g. as the main subject of a talk) for the first time in our community. (15) Although the subject has also been broached tangentially at EuroIA 2010 and elsewhere, I look forward to speaking with Prof. Hannon at some point; alas, I was not able to attend the Boulder conference.

A second empirical observation

When I first suspected that comprehensive design mock-ups might be creating problems, we tweaked the development/presentation process in my own company, FatDUX. Subsequently, we spent much more effort in guiding senior management through our decision-making process prior to showing actual color design mockups. Although we had always involved our clients in the earlier stages of the development process, we had never previously insisted on top-management participation.

My empirical observation is that if C-level administrators are made part of the comprehensive design process, there is less chance they will insist on bigger pictures or cuter kittens on the website. In situations where we have not been able to obtain face-time with senior officials, our designs are more often open to challenge. Only expensive rounds of usability testing have enabled us to reinstate the graphic-design best-practices we normally espouse.

Some background

Both of my parents were scientists and the value of the scientific method and controlled studies was something I learned in parallel with my ABCs. As a pre-med student at Washington University in St. Louis, I continued my scientific studies, although I did wind up in a so-called “unrelated field” (encouraged by my father, who helped me send my first e-mail back in 1982 (no typo) to his secretary at the University of Miami). I have since been involved in the creation and/or critique of over 1500 websites and online apps.

So in closing, I encourage you to do your own research to prove or disprove my contention. And if you’d like to share your own empirical observations and/or research, I hope you’ll leave a comment here or write me directly at

Here, I use “thesis” in the literal Greek fashion: as an “intellectual proposition” (θέσις), not a “dissertation” (dissertātiō).,+dopaminergic+neurons+are+fired&source=bl&ots=JMINA_81vP&sig=9fC8tPBQ6hGBzweK0B9y0Og3rIg&hl=da&ei=9_tYTeDyEozoOaTzsJIF&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEkQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

Twitter, plus the SIGIA list maintained by the American Society for Information Science and Technology, and the discussion list of the Interaction Design Association. The survey was published on 10 January 2010.

Trips and User Experience

13.12.2010 | Author: Borislav Kiprin
We all take trips on regular basis. They might defer in destination, purpose and pace, but nonetheless we travel to that finale we once set foot to. And while we are at that, we do not venture on a flat surface, but rather go through a maze of intersecting multiple such ones. What I am trying to say is that we all have an ultimate goal, and although there are twists and turns in each road map we all get there eventually.

Fewdays back, I had to fly to Germany for one day - a quick in and out into the heart of technological country's capital Munich. There were two meetings to attend and both of them required extensive hops on the trains. Now, my German, if I can say I have any, is strictly attached to the fact that I speak French and English. And if I try very hard, from time to time I can make up the meaning of all these signs, names and direction. I have to say that prior to the trip I was worried. No one was supposed to pick me up from the airport and I had to find my way in a city I have never visited before.

To my surprise, there was not a single moment I doubted the way I took. This is not, because I am a super-duper  smart bloke. It is because someone in the city's government took the time to make everything so accessible through the metropolitan's rail system. This is what I call great user experience - Munich simply did not allow me to think of anything else except my upcoming meetings. Efficiency seems to be written in bold capital letters.

Now let's take a step back to the week before the trip when I had actually to figure out the whole trip - this is my online travel to the destination - getting as much information and setting the plan up:

  • - I had to buy a ticket and the site offered me a purchasing process in 5 simple steps. It actually added value to me acquiring the ticket without pushing any irrelevant info or added value service.

  • Google Maps - East, West, South, North, you know, that type of thing. Well, street names and addresses to look up. Simply input the address and the magnify. Click on Print and the PDF is already on you Mac and then on the Kindle. Easy-peasy!

  • Munich Transportation System - with this one I had a blast at Not only it saved me money by pinpointing the cheapest option for my travel, but also the info was available in 5 languages. Try to research these for Moscow, Shanghai or Sofia. Word of advise, if you decide to do that, have a shot of vodka next to the computer… On a second thought, get the whole bottle!

As I said, the whole trip was a quick and dirty job - no fancy-shmancy touristy stuff, no time for food and definitely no opportunity to be lost in translation. The only bad moment I can think of is that Munich has virtually nonexistent free Wi-Fi spots. Shanghai and Sofia rule big time over that.

But here is the punch in the whole story - User Experience. This is not a notion that applies only to your website or application. It concerns every trip the user takes in order to complete a task set up front, reach a goal or simply enjoy the ride. Great user experience is achieved through supplying all the means in terms of information architecture, content, clarity and staying out of the way(which means no messing up with my mind). And believe me, doing all that needs careful consideration based on research, common sense and ability to walk in someone else's shoes.

And before you take off to another page on the FatDUX's site, have you ever wondered how the whole thing with the Metropolitain map started?

Well, you have to give credit to Henry (Harry) Charles Beck. Almost 80 years ago, he created the London Tube Map based on a topological approach. And since, he did that on his own time (not during working hours), I guess he simply wanted to offer a better information architecture and user experience. Or in Grant Campbell's most eloquent words at EuroIA 2010 in Paris:

"Much of IA involves clarification: how can complex information spaces be made clear to users? In many cases, we achieve clarity by anticipating the user's need and selecting or suppressing details, just as the mind suppresses sensory information that is extraneous to a given task. Beck's map of the London Underground is a famous example of information visualization that achieves just such a purpose, by abandoning scale, and by emphasizing only those details necessary for a clear purpose."

In 1908 London Tube's map had a geographical approach (distance, babe!):


In 1933 Harry Beck took a structural approach that takes the noise and user's perplex off:


It seems Munich Transportation Services paid close attention. Lufthansa and Google Maps did so, too. But do you? Next time you take a trip, think about it and do share in the comment section bellow!

P.S. Thanks to our own Eric Reiss for providing pointers on background information!

Tech tips for conference presenters and organizers

30.11.2010 | Author: Eric Reiss
I attend a fair number of conferences each year. I speak at a number of these. I also help organize a conference, EuroIA. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years. Perhaps they will make your life easier and your presentations smoother. As an audience member, there’s nothing worse than watching novices fiddle about on stage.

Note: this is not so much about HOW to present, but how to handle the technical and practical aspects of public speaking. Presenters: I’m assuming you know that eye contact is a good thing. Organizers: I assume you understand the importance of keeping a conference running smoothly and providing free WiFi.

Note #2: I will be incorporating reader suggestions in order to keep this article up-to-date. So if you have a great tip, please let me know.

Tips for presenters

1. Take the time to check your presentation ahead of time on a real VGA projector. Under all circumstances, you need to know how to get your presentation up on both the projector AND your laptop screen (two clicks on F4 or F10 for most PC users). You’ll find that orange and yellow will become greenish. And light grey lines in graphs and other graphics may disappear entirely. Some videos may become way too dark. Adjust your colours and other elements accordingly so your audience actually gets to see the things you want to present.

2. Check your timing. Audiences feel cheated if you have to rush through or skip large portions of your presentation. And you look pretty foolish, too. If you want to take questions afterwards, make sure to leave time for this. For this reason, I ALWAYS take a small, easy-to-read analogue clock with me that I put somewhere I can see it. It is easier to glance at a clock with big hands than at your wristwatch or presentation tool. If all else fails, I sometimes start the stopwatch on my phone and put the phone on the floor in front of where I will be standing. Whatever you do, NEVER run over your allotted time. If your organiser is going to provide time signals, make sure you understand them and VISIBLY ACKNOWLEDGE them when you see them during the final minutes of your presentation.

3. Check your equipment ahead of time. Use a break prior to your presentation to set up your computer and make sure everything works properly – particularly video and sound. You can then disconnect it, knowing that when it’s your turn to present, the changeover should be a simple matter of plug-and-play.

4. If you are presenting from someone else’s computer, make sure to check your animations. (Powerpoint does not convert one-to-one when moving from a Mac to a PC and vice versa.) Also, not all Powerpoint and Keynote functionality is backward compatible. If your presentation was created using the latest product release and relies on sophisticated features, check these thoroughly after you transfer your presentation to the host computer. Personally, I still use PowerPoint 2003 because it works with pretty much everything (except a Mac, of course).

5. If you are using a remote presentation tool (I love my Logitech 2.4 GHz cordless presenter), make sure to check that it has batteries and is in good working order. If you are using a smartphone and Bluetooth (Android, iPhone, etc.) to advance your slides, make sure it is also charged and ready for action (Warning to new presenters: because smartphones use touch-screen buttons, you’ll have to look at your phone each time you need to click, which can seriously hinder your presentation style. Far better to buy or borrow a dedicated clicker with physical buttons. And practice using it and the laser pointer!)

6. Always make sure your computer has a VGA port or an adaptor to this format. If you are presenting from a Mac, make sure to bring your own MiniDVI to VGA adaptor. As an audience member, it’s irritating to wait while a presenter asks the audience if anyone has an adaptor. Organizers have a schedule to keep; the time you waste is often your own. Note: the adapter for older Macs will not fit a newer machine and vice versa.

7. Bring with you all the proper power cables and outlet adaptors you will need. Simple electrical plug compatibility can be a real hassle sometimes, so make sure you can actually plug in your laptop. 120V and 220V conversion is rarely an issue; the problem is always with the physical plug connection. Remember to take your adaptor with you when you’re finished (most of the adaptors I own have been left behind by others in hotels and at conferences).

8. Fully charge your laptop or iPad before your presentation. If someone kicks out the plug, you don’t want your presentation to crash.

9. If you need sound (typically a 3.5mm jack to plug into your headphone output), tell the organizers well ahead of time. Don’t automatically assume that sound will be available.

10. Optimize your screen resolution. PC users seem to do best at 1024 x 768. That said, older projectors will sometimes insist on 800 x 600 resolution. Mac users should probably start with 800 x 600 and work their way up to something higher. The wide-screen projectors now coming into use will probably require you to fiddle with your settings for optimum results. I have no rule of thumb at this point.

11. Older Mac operating systems require a restart to properly connect to the projector. Remember this if the computer is not connecting properly.

12. If your laptop is connected properly, but the projector gives you a “No Signal” message, try switching the source input on the projector (for example from PC 1 to PC 2).

13. If you are going to upload your presentation to Slideshare, do so ahead of time, but mark it as “Private”. The morning of the conference, you can easily switch this restriction to “Public” from a smartphone or some other low-bandwidth device so your presentation immediately becomes available.

14. If you want to read more about generic presentation tips, check out this excellent 2007 article from Lifehack:

Or this one from BZ Media:

Or this great advice from Donna Spencer:

And if you will be speaking through an interpreter, check out this excellent advice from AZ World:

Tips for conference organizers

1. Make sure you have a range of suitable electrical adaptors, plus both of the Mac VGA adaptors in your emergency kit. Ensure that there are unused power outlets available at the speaker’s podium – at least two.

2. Arrange hand-signals with your speakers so they know how long they have left before their time runs out. I generally stand at the back of the room and hold up two hands with fingers outstretched to signal “10-minute warning”. A single hand is the “5-minute warning” Making a “T” using both hands means “Time up”. Put a clock on stage if one is not already hanging at the back of the room. And don’t be afraid to drop a Q&A session or simply break off a presentation if the speaker is unable to finish at the proper time.

3. If a session starts late (but not because the presenter is unprepared), don’t cut the presenter off early just to make up time. You owe them the chance to deliver their session properly. Better to incorporate longer breaks and to shave some time off of these to get back on schedule.

4. Don’t force your guests to use a standard presentation design template. This cramps their visual style. Even a simple header/footer will invariably take up valuable on-screen space. It’s better to do without.

5. Although you may need contributions for your printed proceedings well in advance of the conference, give your speakers as long as possible to edit and improve their presentations - preferably up until the night before the conference (when their own creativity and adrenalin levels are at their highest). Insisting on a “final” presentation weeks ahead of time will invariably lead to poorer performance levels during the conference itself. Note: the best presenters practice and fine-tune their stuff up until the very last minute – not because they are unprepared, but because they are gearing up for the performance they will be giving.

6. If you want your conference logo or Twitter details on the opening screen of the presentation, let your presenters know in good time. Do them the favour of sending them an optimized logo that is easy to paste into their presentation (eps, jpg, gif). Don’t assume presenters are going to bother to download something from your conference website and then Photoshop it to the right format – or that they even have the skills needed to do this.

7. Although tempting, avoid uploading presentations to your on-stage conference computer. This can easily screw up videos and animations. If swap time is critical (e.g. moving from one presentation to the next), arrange to have a VGA switch available so you can move from one computer to the other at the flick of a button.

8. If you have a cover slide to open your conference, or even a simple presentation of sponsors etc. to kick off the proceedings, consider giving this to your keynote speaker so he or she can incorporate it at the beginning of his or her own slide deck. This avoids the first presentation hand-off and starts the conference in a smoother manner. If you have a standard title slide you want to use as a transition to other presentations, give this to your presenters ahead of time.

9. If you plan on starting your conference by thanking all your volunteers, consider putting together a PowerPoint that runs automatically and loops endlessly while people are finding their seats. Seth Godin has a good article about how to do this. As opposed to a simple cover presentation, you’ll probably need to keep this on your conference laptop and not give it to your opening keynote speaker.

10. If you absolutely need a presentation delivered to you on a USB stick (to coordinate with a video recording, for example), make sure to let the presenter know exactly what is needed and how it will be used in advance of the conference.

11. If you have a screen behind the speaker, beware of using big plasma displays (LCD). These will not appear properly in photographs taken at the event. The colours always change and the effect can be very disconcerting.

12. Keep in mind that projections on a wall will be dimmer than projections on a real movie screen. Back projections will not be as bright or photograph as well as front projections.

13. Make sure projector and sound cables (VGA and 3.5mm jack) are available at the same physical location (the podium for example). Curiously, many technicians have VGA at the podium and sound somewhere else entirely. Conversely, make sure the cables can be separated; many laptops have VGA and jack inputs on opposite sides so bundled cables can create problems.

14. If you need to give your presenters a microphone, make sure they are cordless. Handheld is OK, but lavalieres are much, much better. Be sure you know how they work and where the mute button is located – don’t rely on a local technician. Ensure that the batteries are fresh in the morning – and swap them during the lunch hour. That said, if you can afford it, keep your technicians in the room at all times.

15. If you expect questions from the audience, make sure a hand-held cordless mike is available, plus a runner who can bring the mike to audience members. If you have two aisles, two mikes/runners are better than one.

16. If you want to read more about how to run a conference, check out this article: